PINEDALE – For the Rev. Peter James Mwaura, the priest at Our Lady of Peace Catholic Church, immigration has a familiar face, and he sees every time he notices his reflection in a mirror or in the stained-glass windows of a church.
That’s his own experience as a native of Kenya – coming to America in December 2001 on what’s called an R-1 visa for religious workers and getting his green card in 2007 to allow him to live and work in the United States as a permanent resident. Getting his actual citizenship in 2014 was actually easier than getting the green card, he said.
Mwaura’s experience was somewhat different in that a religious worker who arrives on an R-1 visa is coming to work for his or her faith, not as one seeking a better life, as many immigrants are. He couldn’t have worked outside the church even if he had wanted to because the visa wouldn’t have allowed it. And he wasn’t exactly planning to leave home.
“When I decided to become a priest, I had no intention of leaving Kenya,” he said.
But the Catholic church had other plans for him.
“I ended up in Italy. Then I got invited to come here to Wyoming,” he said.
Mwaura was ordained a priest in 2003, and served first in Cheyenne; then in Sheridan; then in Sundance; and from 2011 on, in Pinedale.
What Americans sometimes miss about the immigration issue, Mwaura said, is that it is a worldwide phenomenon. Nations such as Kenya and Mexico, too, have immigrants. And just as in the United States, people in other countries have mixed attitudes about immigrants. Some welcome them, some have concerns.
“That is all over. I know a lot of Kenyans who are not happy to have so many Somalis in Kenya,” he said.
But people often don’t know their stories, or why they have left their homelands.
“People move because they are seeking a better life somewhere else,” he said.
Mwaura said the Catholic faith teaches that Christians ought to respect and welcome the strangers and aliens in their midst, just as the Israelites were told to do in the Bible because they had been strangers themselves once in the land of Egypt.
It’s not just an Old Testament lesson, Mwaura noted. The New Testament is even clearer about it in Jesus’ parables that stress being good to your neighbor.
“Who is your neighbor?” Mwaura said. “The neighbor is the person who needs you, needs your help.”
Americans should also understand that immigrants also love and sometimes grieve for what they left behind. He experiences it when he returns to Kenya.
“The reason I’m here is for the church and God,” he said. “But I feel happy when I come to the airport and they tell me, ‘Welcome home.’”